Albert Einstein conducted thought experiments to figure out theoretical problems. Let’s do one of our own. Suppose that you fell and broke your left leg and had to be in a cast for eight weeks. Would you expect your left leg to be as strong as your right leg when the cast was removed? Of course not. You know that muscle that is not exercised gets smaller and softer. Secondly, would you expect that, by sitting in a recliner for the next two months, your left calf would magically grow back and strengthen to where it was before? Of course, you wouldn’t.
However, that is exactly what many of us do with our brains. We sit around passively and take our brains for granted. We don’t exercise the brain, yet we expect it to take care of itself. But all cells in the body need to be used or they suffer from what is called disuse atrophy. When body builders start lifting, they use muscle cells that were previously sitting idle. As these cells are exercised vigorously, they hypertrophy, the opposite of atrophy. We can do the very same thing with our brain cells, and the potential is enormous.
The human brain is composed of approximately one hundred billion cells, and neuroscientists using PET scans and other devices estimate that we only use about ten billion of these cells in our lifetime.
That means that there are ninety billion cells just sitting on top of our shoulders waiting for something to do!
Different areas of our brains control different functions such as speech, walking, writing, music, math and coordination. So, just as the body builder targets each muscle group with specific exercises, we must exercise all the different parts of our brains.
For example, balance is a function of multiple areas of the brain all of which can be strengthened by walking. When we walk, we strengthen the legs but at the same time we stimulate the nerves that signal the balance centers of the brain. These signals fire millions of times a second, coordinating our eyesight with inner ear and cerebellar inputs. By practicing walking in a straight line, we target the balance and coordination centers, making them stronger, which can help prevent falls and that dreaded broken hip.
Our brains have incredible potential, but nothing happens by itself.
It starts with us making the decision to exercise our brain. This decision itself originates in a different part of the brain and that, too, will get stronger with repeated use. The fact is, decisions we make daily will change our brain every day for the rest of our lives. Decisions we make today will affect how our brain functions 10 years from now.
We can make it happen. We can do math, balance our checkbook in our head, then double-check it with our calculator. We can study history, explore music, take educational courses online or via DVD. We can learn a new language, do crosswords, read, read, read. The more we do now the better our brain, and in turn our lives, will be.
(Ken Bartholomew, M.D., is a contributing Prairie Doc columnist. He practices in Pierre, S.D., and serves on the Healing Words Foundation Board of Directors)